Namatjira and Heysen –  from different worlds, but the bush was their canvas

HANG paintings by Albert Namatjira (left) and Hans Heysen (right) side by side and you can see the Australian Outback as a place of some beauty, just as they did.

The Outback is the colloquial name for the vast, unpopulated and mainly arid areas that comprise Australia’s interior and remote coasts.

Few people go way out there – they travel through it or fly over but few linger to see its true character.

Through the eyes of artists, the Outback takes on a character that defies its reputation of desert, bush and isolation.

In fact, the outback could be considered that large part of Australia that extends from the northern to southern Australian coastlines inland from the heavily populated eastern coast and includes several climatic zones; from the tropical and monsoonal climates in northern areas, arid areas in the “red centre” and semi-arid and temperate climates to the south.

But it is the “red centre” (a misnomer according to those who can appreciate its beauty) and the bush that captured the imagination of several artists. Both Namatjira and Heysen captured the beauty of the landscape in their watercolour works.

Outback gum (eucalypt) trees are prominent features. But that’s not to say their individual paintings were in parallel or even always similar. They were not, as is plainly obvious when their collections are viewed.

And their lives were very different. Namatjira died soon after being released from prison – in 1959, having been sentenced to serve time for supplying another Aboriginal with liquor.

Heysen married into a noted family and was knighted for his services to art. Wealthy South Australians funded a four-year visit to France to study art. An electoral district in South Australia was named for him. Heysen died in 1968.

Throughout their lives, both received prominent media coverage – Namatjira unfortunately sometimes for the controversial aspects.

In 2017 both artists, though long gone, were again in the spotlight.

In a struggle lasting decades after the artist’s death, the family of Albert Namatjira finally had the rights to his art returned to them.

After Namatjira died in 1959, the Public Trustee for the Northern Territory Government took over administration of his estate, with Legend Press continuing to manage copyright and royalty payments to the Namatjira family.

But the Public Trustee sold Namatjira’s ownership of copyright to Legend Press in 1983, ending the income stream to the artist’s family — a decision the trustee some time later acknowledged was wrong.

The legal battle to get copyright restored to the family only ended, not with a decision of the court, but by the intervention of millionaire businessman and entrepreneur Dick Smith.

Smith decided to support the Namatjira family’s cause, convinced that there had been a “misunderstanding” between the family and copyright owner Legend Press.

He told the ABC: “I had originally met [owner] John Brackenreg many years ago and found him to be an ethical person.

“They’d reached an impasse after about 10 years of negotiation. In 15 minutes, we worked our way around the problems.

“I agreed to donate some money towards the Namatjira Foundation and John Brackenreg’s son Philip agreed that he’d transfer the entire copyright to the family.”

Smith said copyright was then handed over to the Namatjira family for a nominal amount of $1.

The deal opened the way for Namatjira’s landscapes to be more widely circulated, following years of tight ­restrictions on display and usage. Various galleries that hold some of more than 1000 Namatjira works, including the National Gallery of Australia, will be able to arrange exhibitions.

Hans Heysen’s name, too became the centre of attention in 2017 when a researcher discovered correspondence in which concerns were expressed that Heysen may have been a war-time traitor.

Art history student Ralph Body made the discovery during research for his PhD paper. As in most countries that made up the Allied forces at the time, German residents of Australia were regarded with great suspicion.

The fact that Heysen was born in Germany raised the concern of a senior police officer in Adelaide who wrote to officers based at Mt Barker, where Heysen was living.

Body said the letter made serious imputations: “His loyalty is described as being of a highly doubtful character and they request his home be put under surveillance based on little more than anonymous stories the commissioner had heard, and the fact Heysen was German-born.”

Heysen’s brother-in-law was sent to an internment camp and not released until 1920. Heysen was subjected to surveillance, virtually under house-arrest.

Body quotes the police reaction to reports Heysen was pleased Germany was losing: “One day when one of my informants passed Mr Heysen working, he called out, ‘the war situation looks better, the British are too good for the Germans and are giving them hell’. From this it will be seen that although Heysen’s sympathy may be with the Germans, he is too clever and cunning to show any sign of disloyalty.”

Heysen Gallery curator Allan Campbell told the ABC: “”Where on Earth did they get that language from? I mean calling Heysen shrewd and cunning, it’s ridiculous. He was one of life’s great gentlemen and a pacifist to boot.”

Campbell said some art galleries took Heysen’s paintings down during the war.

Hans Heysen of course went on to become a celebrated Australian artist.

Paintings, Top left: Albert Namatjira’s Mount Sonder, West McDonnell Ranges c. 1945. Watercolour over faint underdrawing in black pencil. Photo – National Gallery of Australia.
Top right: Hans Heysen, Aroona (1939) 42.2 x 62.0 cm watercolour on paper.

Albert Namatjira

Born Elea Namatjira, Albert was a Western Arrernte-speaking Aboriginal from the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia.

The Australian dictionary of Biography records:

Albert (Elea) Namatjira (1902-1959), artist, was born on 28 July 1902 at Hermannsburg (Ntaria), Northern Territory, son of Namatjira and his wife Ljukuta. Elea belonged to the western group of the Arrernte people. In 1905 the family was received into the Lutheran Church: Elea (who was given the name Albert) and his father (who took the name Jonathan) were baptized, and his mother was blessed (as Emilie). Albert attended the Hermannsburg mission school. In accordance with the practice of the missions, he lived separately from his parents in a boys’ dormitory. At 13 he spent six months in the bush and underwent initiation. He left the mission again at the age of 18 and married Ilkalita, a Kukatja woman. Eight of their children were to survive infancy: five sons—Enos, Oscar, Ewald, Keith and Maurice—and three daughters—Maisie, Hazel and Martha. The family shifted to Hermannsburg in 1923 and Ilkalita was christened Rubina.

While dabbling in various forms of art as a youngster, including sketching and poker carvings on bark – inspired by the landscapes around him, Namatjira worked variously as a blacksmith, carpenter, stockman and cameleer; the mission for rations and on neighbouring stations for wages.

Noted artists visiting central Australia to paint landscapes saw potential and encouraged Namatjira’s work. In 1937 some of his watercolours were displayed at a Lutheran conference in Nuriootpa, South Australia, and at an exhibition with the Royal South Australian Society of Arts, Adelaide

In 1938 Namatjira held his first solo exhibition at the Fine Art Society Gallery, Melbourne where he was mobbed by autograph hunters.

Namatjira’s work won national and international acclaim. In 1944 he was included in Who’s Who in Australia. He was awarded Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal (1953), presented to the Queen in Canberra (1954) and elected an honorary member of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales (1955).

Namatjira was the first Northern Territory Aboriginal person to be freed from restrictions that made Aboriginal people wards of the State. In 1957, he became the first Aboriginal person to be granted restricted Australian citizenship, which allowed him to vote, have limited land rights and buy alcohol.

But he also encountered racial discrimination. He was refused a grazing licence in 1949 and prevented in 1951 from building a house on land he bought at Alice Springs. Seeking further means of support for his family, he discovered copper deposits at Areyonga Reserve, but they proved commercially unviable. By the early 1950s he lived independently of the mission in a fringe camp at Morris Soak on the outskirts of Alice Springs.

It was the freedom to buy alcohol that landed him in prison.

One night in 1958 a woman was killed near Morris Soak by her husband, and Namatjira was told by the coroner that he would be jailed for six months if he was caught supplying liquor to fellow Aborigines. Weeks later he was charged with leaving a bottle of rum where a fellow tribesman found it (his explanation was that he had put it on the seat of a car from where it was taken). He was sentenced to six months imprisonment with labour.

Following a public outcry and two appeals, the sentence was reduced to three months. Namatjira eventually served two months of ‘open’ detention at the Papunya settlement in March-May 1959. He died of hypertensive heart failure on 8 August that year at Alice Springs Hospital and was buried in the local cemetery. His wife, five sons and one of his daughters survived him.

FOOTNOTE: The ABC reported on 28 August 2018 that Namatjira family members had welcomed an undisclosed compensation payment to the Namatjira Legacy Trust from the Northern Territory Government for the “unjust” sale of copyright to the artist’s works of art to Legend Press in 1983.

UPDATE: Vincent Namatjira, great-grandson of acclaimed artist Albert Namatjira, in 2020 became the first Indigenous Australian to win the $100,000 Archibald Prize in its 99-year history.

The Western Arrernte artist was an Archibald finalist for the fourth year in a row in 2020 (the runner up in 2018), with a double-portrait featuring himself alongside former AFL player and 2014 Australian of the Year Adam Goodes, entitled Stand Strong for Who You Are.

Accepting the award via Zoom from the APY Lands, where he lives, Namatjira said: “What an honour it is to be the first Indigenous winner of the Archibald Prize. It only took 99 years!”

Namatjira won against other finalists who included former Archibald Prize winners Louise Hearman, Nicholas Harding, Craig Ruddy, Marcus Wills, Wendy Sharpe and Guy Maestri.

The win capped a remarkable 18 months for Namatjira, who won the $100,000 Ramsay Art Prize in 2019.

Hans Heysen

Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen (1877-1968) was born on 8 October 1877 in Hamburg, Germany, to Louis Heinrich Wilhelm Heysen and Maria Elisabeth Henriette. The family including five surviving children migrated to South Australia in 1883-84. Heysen was 7.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says: “From 1885 Hans attended the East Adelaide Model and four other schools in Adelaide, acquiring a bilingual education and giving early indications of artistic skill. His father moved from one unsuccessful enterprise to another until he established himself as a produce merchant. Heysen left school in 1892, aged 14, working first in a hardware store and then on one of his father’s produce carts. At 14 he bought his first paints: ‘I saw a drainpipe with stalks and reeds … It seemed to me beautiful, so I painted it’, he later said.

 Heysen married Selma Bartels (1878–1962) on 15 December 1904. Her father was Adolph H. F. Bartels, a former Lord Mayor of Adelaide. Their daughter Nora Heysen also became a successful artist.

By 1912 Hans Heysen had earned enough from his art to purchase a property called “The Cedars” (pictured above) near Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, which remained his home until his death in 1968 aged 90.

Heysen is best remembered for his remarkable paintings depicting sheep and cattle among massive gum trees against a background of sunlight. Most of his work was based on the landscape around Hahndorf and the Flinders Ranges.

Heysen won the Wynne Prize – awarded annually for the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours – nine times between 1904 and 1932.

In 1945 Heysen was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and in 1959 was made a Knight Bachelor for his services to art. The 1,200 km walking track from the Flinders Ranges to (via the Adelaide Hills) to the Fleurieu Peninsular is called “The Heysen Trail” in his honour.

Many of Heysen’s work are on display at the South Australian Art Gallery,

A Hans Heysen watercolour sold for a record-breaking $110,000 at an auction in Adelaide in 2017 after it was discovered at a deceased estate in Germany.

The painting, titled The Camp on Wonoka Creek, is Heysen’s largest watercolour work, but had not been seen since it was sold in 1958. It ended up at a private collection at Dusseldorf in Germany, where an international art dealer picked it up.

Sources and references: Australian Dictionary of Biography, ABC.com.au, press reports of the copyright settlement, Wikipedia, National Gallery of Australia. thecedars.com.au.

FOOTNOTE: The author became familiar with the works of the artists when at Primary School in NSW – prints of their works were on the classroom wall.

UPDATE: Hans Heysen’s daughter Nora also became an accomplished artist. She wasn’t a pupil of her father but her travels around Europe kindled her interest and talent. In 1938 she became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture. In 1943 she became the first woman to be appointed an official Australian war artist. Her forte was still life and portraiture. Nora Heysen died  in Sydney in 2003. Her and her father’s works have been shown in a joint exhibition that premiered at the National Gallery Victoria in March 2019.

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